Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nun bridges Christianity, aboriginals

Sister Eva Solomon's work takes her across northern and western Canada

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She's been a school teacher, worked with teenagers at World Youth Day, and recently completed a doctorate in cross-cultural ministry, but Eva Solomon's real experience lies in building bridges.

 

Most recently, she's been using those skills to create connections between aboriginals and the Catholic Church through her work with the Assembly of Western Catholic Bishops.

"It's necessary to understand who we are as Catholic aboriginal people. We need to know our spiritual roots," says the Ojibway woman from Northern Ontario, who has been a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie since 1960.

"It's my calling to say what we need to do is explore our roots."

Based in Winnipeg, her work involves travelling extensively to communities in northern and western Canada, serving as pastoral visitor, lecturer and workshop leader to aboriginals and non-aboriginals in 17 Catholic dioceses.

That exploration of roots means finding connections and commonalities between traditional aboriginal spirituality and Christianity instead of assuming the two are mutually exclusive, says Solomon, who can trace her roots back eight generations to Ezekial Solomon, the first Jewish man to emigrate to what is now Michigan.

That ancestor, whose name she carries, raised his children in his wife's Roman Catholic faith while being true to his own heritage by helping to build the first synagogue in Montreal.

Solomon acknowledges that not all aboriginal people are interested in blending their traditional ways with Christianity, but she sees value in it for those who do.

"We've known what it was like to be children of God. We knew what it was like to be within a people of similar belief, but we didn't know what it was like to have Christian ways," she says. "For me, it's important to have both, but for some traditional people it's not important to have both."

For Solomon, the biblical story of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well exemplifies how someone from a traditional faith enters a discussion with Jesus.

"And her biggest question is what's the right way to worship God?" explains Solomon, who completed a doctorate from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago in 2005.

"It doesn't matter if you are Jewish or Samaritan, it's that you worship God."

Aboriginals brought their own expressions of worship and reverence for God and creation to their practice of Christianity, and now can offer that back to the church, Solomon says.

"One of the things aboriginal people have to share with the Catholic Church is an awareness of community that's a whole lot deeper than the way we live it (now)," she says. "This respect for this land, and that the land is now ours to own, it's something to share."

That sort of cross-cultural example resonates with Rev. Larry Kondra, who recently organized a seminar by Solomon for priests and lay people connected with The Welcome Home, a Point Douglas outreach mission run by the Ukrainian Catholic Redemptorists. He sees parallels between aboriginals' exposure to Christianity and how Ukrainians incorporated Christian practices and beliefs.

"It kind of resonated with the Ukrainians because we have a history of receiving Christianity in the year 1000 and having it immersed in Ukrainian culture," explains Kondra, provincial superior for the Redemptorists. "I think it was a surprise to the people (at Solomon's seminar). There was a natural affinity there."

Solomon is also collaborating with Johanna Jonker of Micah House, a Catholic centre for social justice located in the North End, in offering a series of workshops that bring together small groups of aboriginal people and non-aboriginals. Limited to two dozen participants, Jonker says the idea is to create connections and respect between people of different traditions and backgrounds, and for both sides to come to terms with their difficult history in the church-run residential school system.

"When we speak together and recognize we have the same dreams and one God, we can reach out together and forgive each other," says Jonker, now planning a third workshop involving participants from local Catholic parishes.

"It's hard to get past that distrust of each other if we never meet. If we distrust each other, we can never reconcile."

Solomon acknowledges that aboriginal people's experience in the residential schools still remains an open wound for many, and her job includes helping them regain their sense of dignity and self-respect.

"There is a process we go through in life in terms of reconciliations," she says. " The biggest reconciliation we go through is reconciling with ourselves."

 

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2009 A11

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